So I’m in my late 30s. This is an age that I think a lot of people dread, because 40 marks the beginning of middle age, the no-good, very bad slump that follows young(er) adulthood where we’re all suddenly used-up malcontents who are either beaten down by life or on the verge of launching headfirst into a sitcom-like midlife crisis.
That is, of course, utterly ridiculous. But I have noticed that birthdays that end in 0 tend to cause panic in adults.
When I was in my late 20s, I watched peers go into a frenzy about all the things they were supposed to have done by 30 and hadn’t. One cried to me about not finishing grad school, another because the planned for husband and two children had not materialized. Some were upset about not making more money, some that they hadn’t yet found that Grand Passion, the thing they loved more than anything else, and hadn’t yet figured out that having a passion for something and being able to make money doing it is one of the biggest lies we tell children. (Even though I’d figured it out, that’s one one of those things you can just tell something – they have to come to the conclusion on their own.)
I sense the same discomfort now as my peer group approaches 40, but age has made them quieter about their self-doubts. What we broadcast in youth, we keep secret in age. Instead, I see restlessness appearing in the form of things like diets and new hobbies and new houses and new cars and a renewed interest in travel.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting to a certain point in your life and reassessing what you’re doing. By all means, stop and think…is this really what I want?
I’ve done it, over and over these past ten years. I couldn’t wait to turn 30 because I had been thinking, very seriously, about myself – not the version of me other people wanted, but the version of me I wanted – and felt like my 30s would be my time to find that person.
I did find that person – but the greatest thing that came out of my 30s was the sense that I have a choice about what I do.
I grew up in a stifling situation in which I was told that there was The Right Way To Do Things. I strained against it pretty hard in my early twenties, but in the process became reactive instead of contemplative. I ended up creating spaces that were safe rather than challenging myself.
That’s what I needed in my 20s, so that was good. I know now that I didn’t feel safe as a child, and my young adult years were marred by that, so if I hadn’t been able to find a way to feel safe and stable as my 20s waned, I never would have evolved. But I got there intuitively, burrowing into a safe relationship and a safe home and a safe career the way an animal burrows to escape a predator.
Once I began to feel safe, I slowly stuck my head out and began to look around.
In my early 30s, it finally occurred to me that I could choose to do things I was always told not to do. That I got to decide who I was, rather than have a narrative forced onto me. And I’ve been busy doing just that.
As I’m coming up from air after plunging into the waters of experimentation for a few years, that when I was a twenty-something, I was watching people make choices. I watched childhood friends move away from our hometown because it was too small and too bigoted and strike out for themselves. I watched people walk away from majors or colleges that didn’t fit. I watched them having experiences and making mistakes and learning to be independent.
But me? I thought I had a prescription I was supposed to follow. I did, briefly, but then I began to react against that prescription, but in the way that a child reacts – without really having a plan or understanding anything other than this isn’t what I want so I’m going to disobey.
After pulling out of the life plan that I never wanted or consented to and finding my safe little burrow, it finally occurred to me that I have a choice. That making choices about myself and things that impact my life wasn’t just something that other people did.
Children mistreated often grow into adults who are driven by seeking approval – some from anyone who will give it, others from romantic partners or professional mentors or the public or even the people who mistreated them. Throughout my 30s, I learned to stop desiring approval – I stopped seeking it in childhood but never shook off of the desire for it. (What child could?) And so the ghosts of those desires followed me into adulthood and caused me to become anxious and hesitant and indecisive.
Now, with 40 on the horizon, I feel like I’m mentally in a good spot, finally out of my burrow and taking steps forward. Not cautiously, but with a sense of purpose.